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Updated: Movie trailer: What happened to Critical Mass in Portland?

Posted by on February 15th, 2009 at 11:13 am

What has happened to Critical Mass in Portland?

A trailer has just been completed for a forthcoming documentary that will explore that question: A Post Critical Mass Portland: Living in a Post-Revolutionary Bicycle Age. You can watch it here:

A Post-Critical Mass Portland: Living in a Post-Revolutionary Bicycle Age from Joe Biel on Vimeo.

Story continues below


“What does it mean that Portland, one of the best North American cities for cycling, has virtually no Critical Mass?”

The full documentary, which should be completed in about two years, is produced and directed by Phil Sano, who should need no introduction, and Joe Biel, founder of Microcosm Publishing.

I dropped by the Microcosm Bookstore (which is just a few doors down from BikePortland HQ) to talk with Biel about the film. He and Phil wanted to make a movie together, and decided to develop a trailer to submit to this year’s Filmed By Bike, Portland’s now-classic bicycle-themed film festival.

The central question of the movie is: “What does it mean that Portland, one of the best North American cities for cycling, has virtually no Critical Mass? Is it no longer relevant in the evolution of cyclists or has the police crackdown just been so successful? What are the new goals of cyclists?”

Portland Critical Mass in January, 2008
(Photo Β© J. Maus)

The movie will include interviews with people who have participated in Critical Mass over the years (including Jonathan and I — you can see us in the trailer), as well as selections from Biel’s large collection of footage that he has taken at Critical Mass in cities all over the world since the mid-1990s, including London and San Francisco, as well as Portland. There’s plenty of cool footage in the trailer as well.

Critical Mass, a monthly event in cities worldwide since the early 1990s, often has a fraught relationship with police, more “mainstream” bicycle advocates, and the media. Fred Nemo has written this fascinating account of the early years of Critical Mass in Portland.

Since then, after many ups and downs, Portland’s Critical Mass seems to have subsided. BikePortland reported a year ago that it seemed to have “lost its mojo.”

Have you been on a Critical Mass ride in Portland in the past two years? We’d love to hear what it was like.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you β€” Jonathan

  • matt f February 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I think they answered their own question: “ [is] no longer relevant in the evolution of cycli[ing] [in Portland]…” Let’s move on…

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  • Scott February 12, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    I ride in a critical mass every morning over the Hawthorne bridge.

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  • r.bee February 12, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    cops outnumbered the riders. that’s what happened.

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  • Dark Mass February 12, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Does the MMR count?

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  • felix February 12, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    people got sick of riding with the police.

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  • Spencer Boomhower February 12, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I’m seeing “Upload Failed” where there should be a video :(. Same on the Vimeo site itself.

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  • Mr DeJerk February 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Link is dead.
    MMR, commuting traffic and other gatherings have nothing to do with CM. The ride is dead because of police presence and cowardice of Portlanders.

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  • JMM February 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Here’s another vote for no longer relevant. “Mainstream” in Portland and “mainstream” elsewhere are almost different beyond comparision. Critical mass these days is tainted by the increasing percentage of people that participate just to make life difficult for others. And that is missing the point.

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  • Elly Blue February 12, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Hey all, the video seems to have disappeared from the Vimeo page. Joe’s left already, and I’m trying to track down Phil to see if he’s able to load it up again for you all. If anyone sees him, send him over!

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  • Loren February 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Maybe people got the idea that they might get more attention from the police than they deserved. Rev Phil knows what I’m talking about.

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  • BURR February 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Killed by the PPB and the PBA.

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  • arni February 12, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I rode in a critical mass during the summer. There were cops, but their job was just to keep a lane of traffic clear. It was nice enough, not taking over the streets like back in the old days, but people weren’t getting pepper sprayed or thrown off their bikes as in the old days, either. The only people I saw getting yelled at by the cops were SUV drivers who tried to cut off the mass! All forms of activism are on the wane, I’m afraid, people just don’t seem to have it in them. Maybe that’s why there aren’t as many people as before.

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  • John Peterson February 12, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Killed by a combo of aggressive “anarcho” bikers and heavy handed police tactics which made the ride too stressful and no fun. Also there are a number of more fun/interesting/less agro group rides in town now (MMR, zoobomb, etc…). Plus alot of bikers just grew up/ have got better things to do….

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  • caryebye February 12, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Remember when Mayor Tom Potter rode in CM. That seems so long ago now!

    I rode in a few, but I must admit the event had a nervous edge with the such a strong police presence. I preferred to ride in mass at midnight, or in the bunny ride, events that self-cork intersections to keep the mass going, without the ticket factor looming. I was surprised that CM disappeared and thought about that not too long ago. Even with eastside attempts. But then again, I wasn’t showing up anymore either. Once when Elly was fairly involved we tried to do a scatter CM downtown where everyone would ride all over downtown at the same time but not following one particular person – the idea didn’t work so well, and everyone followed someone else anyway, in the same typical route up nw, down burnside. I also wasn’t so sure of what I thought about some of the folks showing up during that heightened police time – it seemed like some of the newbies I chatted with were looking forward to some bike-police drama, which is the last thing I wanted to see. But this is just snippets from the few times I did attend CM.

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  • RyNO Dan February 12, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Critical What ?
    Perhaps this would have been an interesting question a few years ago.
    Odd that they’re not spending their
    time on the current and future of cycling.
    We all already know “what happened to CM
    in Portland”. In two years, perhaps we will
    have forgetten.
    They must have a different audience in mind.

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  • ScottG February 12, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Here’s an idea for a point/counterpoint article for

    Thesis 1: Critical Mass has played a critical role in making Portland the bike-friendly city is is today.

    Thesis 2: Portland’s cycling culture is much better off for our recent lack of Critical Mass events.

    Just an idea. I just became a Portland resident so I don’t have the background to write either.

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  • joe February 12, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    This – “Killed by the PPB and the PBA.”

    there are separate rules for downtown. once the pba and their security forces decided they did not want it, they killed it. I think most riders had the attitude that if they want to kill this and allow all of our other bike fun to mostly go unharrassed, fair deal.

    I rode in prolly 20 or so CMs in portland. Great way to meet people but I stopped going after I could not ride for 30 minutes without being threatened by ppb.

    The SF ride had the same issue but some people stepped up and took on the mayor and the police there. here, that did not happen. should be a fun movie to check out.

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  • cyclist February 12, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I’m very, very happy CM is gone, they did more to engender dislike of cyclists than they did to gain us traction in the community.

    Critical mass brought a lot of the “fuck shit up” contingent out of the woodwork. They were more or less looking for a confrontation, and after a while they got one. I did it once and that was enough for me. It feels like the cycling community has grown up enough to act like adults, so we don’t need the “us vs. them” bs quite as much any more.

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  • el timito February 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Since the “purpose” of CM always seemed as multifarious as the riders involved, it makes sense that the answers here are varied too.
    I take exception, though, with Mr. DeJerk’s statement that MMR, etc. had nothing to do with CM’s demise. For me Critical Mass was about riding bikes, feeling safe, feeling empowered, enjoying the camraderie of other bikers, and celebration. The huge daily commute, the World Naked Bike Ride, and any number of other bike events big and little in this town give me the warm glow, the sense that the road belongs to me too, and the big fun that CM wanted to give. Why struggle with cops for something we’ve already won?
    Though the Mass did provide good fodder for the slightly dormant Trash Mountain Boys (heard here with the ever-legal Rev. Phil on drums: ).

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  • BURR February 12, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    not true, Joe, there were definitely folks who attempted to engage the mayor and the police, basically to no avail, as in the end the overbearing police presence simply made the ride not fun any longer.

    you could probably write some imaginative lyrics to the Ramones tune, The KKK Took My Baby Away.

    (That would be Mayor Vera Katz, Police Chief Mark Kroeker, and PBA boss at the time Kim Kimbrough)

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  • steve February 12, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    I quit going to CM after watching an unmarked police SUV cut through the mass. A cop reached/hung out the window and pulled a 17 year old girl from her moving bike.

    She only lost 2 teeth though.

    But yeah, I am sure that commuters and MMR are why people quit going..

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  • Craig Giffen February 12, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    For me it was the fact that I just got older. I rode with CM for a few years starting in 1997, but all the small groups of people running red lights and snaking though cars started to feel a bit counterproductive. I felt out of place and stopped going.

    In March 2003, I rode in a very large critical mass in mass in Melbourne, Australia. There was a police presence but the attitude was completely different. I was biking near a couple of cops on bikes. One cop said to the other “man, that asshole in the red car trying to shove his way though, we should have just shot him”, then they both laughed.

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  • jim February 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    I stepped in some critical mass once but I scraped it off

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  • Sarah O February 12, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I stopped riding in 2003 after I got arrested during CM. Hilariously, during my arraignment at the courthouse a few weeks later, I ran into Rev. Phil. πŸ˜‰

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  • Boo Boo February 12, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I think it’s hilarious that you are promoting a documentary that not even finished, let alone barely started. Let us know when it actually materializes.

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  • Randy February 12, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I look forward to the day Critical Mass returns with a diversity of peaceful cyclists.

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  • D.R. Miller February 12, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    On comment 16: I don’t know that the story and experience of CM in Portland is something that can really be framed as either/or like that. Could be that both are true, with qualificatons. As for thesis 2, I think it is as true as bikers themselves desire for it to be. My general thought is that we “won” the battle by taking “it” to lots of other streets and at other times than 6:00PM of the last Friday. And after a couple more years of the new Great Depression, who knows what the ratio of cars to bikes on the streets will be.

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  • Afro Biker February 13, 2009 at 5:48 am

    Critical Mass…a mob of thugs who just want confrontation. Is this really what Portland needs?

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  • Jimbolia February 13, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Critical mass did nothing but generate ill will toward cyclists. We must find a more mature and results oriented way of expressing our needs as a community.

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  • Andrew Holtz February 13, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I agree with those who say that the era of Critical Mass has passed. It’s an adolescent kind of thing, and cycling in Portland has matured.

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  • bikieboy February 13, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Scott (#16)- along D.R.s (#27) line, i don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. At the time CM first got going in PDX, the BTA was just a few years old and widely viewed as a radical fringe, far left-of-the-spectrum organization. CM took that spot, and BTA’s positions began to seem fairly mainstream. So, yeah, CM played a definite role in making PDX bike friendly. Whether there’s still a place for CM is pretty much determined by the participation.

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  • February 13, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    post 9-11,police had the legal tools to do as they wished( and pretty much still do)

    the nail that sticks up is the one that gets pounded down.

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  • Chris Shaffer February 13, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    I ride in Kidical Mass every now and then with my daughter. Totally non-confrontational and fun, and pretty active in Portland.

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  • Withheld February 14, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Critical Mass is passe in Portland.

    Agreed; Kidical Mass is what’s happening. And you don’t need to be a parent to appreciate the importance of sending a message that bicyclists of all ages should be able to ride safely.

    That’s the next frontier: bike infrastructure so safe and so intuitive your “non-bikey” neighbors will use. Viva la cycle track.

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  • Steve February 15, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Portland’s progression from the old school critical mass/antagonist model is one of the reasons it’s the best biking city in the country.

    There are plenty of group rides that have the same air of fun. Streets get corked, and you meet lots of folks.

    I second the notion “We’ve already won!”
    What we’ve won is respect. What we need to push for is more support from the city for more and more bike infrastructure. It seems to me that they are listening.

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  • Dr. Benjamin February 15, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I loved Elly’s quote that calling 911 about critical mass was ludicrous- equating it to calling in backed up traffic on the freeway. Especially after Joe McCain’s call a few months ago.

    Anyway- looking forward to this documentary. I think Portland is beyond the regular, routine Critical Mass for the time being- we have a constant critical mass of riders on our streets and lots of large group rides all the time that still make a statement even if they don’t intend to. The community still pulls together larger, more pointed rides to raise awareness when necessary and that ability to move to action when necessary is, in my opinion, more effective than the monthly ride.

    Great job Joe & Phil- looking forward to the feature length version.

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  • Spencer Boomhower February 15, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    All of us who enjoy the benefits of the relatively friendly and respectful attitudes Portland drivers have toward cyclists owe a debt to the crazy people – like the ones who started Critical Mass – who got out there and did what shouldn’t have to be considered an almost outlaw or revolutionary act, but is: they put themselves and their bikes out in dangerous automotive traffic, and claimed the roads for the rest of us.

    Thank you, crazy outlaw revolutionaries.

    Even if Critical Mass has served its purpose, I hope it doesn’t go away. I hope it lives on, even if in some dormant state, or all scattered throughout the city’s cyclists who now feel emboldened to, say, take a lane on Hawthorne, or to generally see the urban streetscape as territory in which they are free to roam. If the time comes when it’s needed again, I hope CM is ready to spring back to life. (I’m seeing a Sauron metaphor here, but feel free to supply your own geeky fantasy/sci-fi comparison.)

    Or maybe CM could morph into something more suited to the current state of things. More settled-in, and less of an obstruction other road-users, making the statement that: we’ve won our right to the road, and we’re on the same level now (even if it doesn’t really always seem that way). Would that take all the fun out of it? Or worse, the meaning?

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  • Shane February 15, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    If you haven’t seen it and are interested, a great documentary about Critical Mass is “We ARE Traffic” by Ted White.

    Ted is the film maker of “Return of the Scorcher” where the term for the CM ride came from and a must see movie for any ‘bike folk’.

    I’m glad someone brought up Kidical Mass because some of the sentiments expressed above are why we wanted to do Kidical Mass- because as a movement we’ve grown up (and maybe even had kids). We wanted to do a ride that our friends, neighbors, and families would want to ride in. Legal, safe, and FUN!

    I think in some places in some instances Critical Mass did good because it brought cyclists together to celebrate the bike and to network and find a common vision. However it also did some negative things to the image of cyclists. It generally was not approachable for ‘non-cyclists’ who we wanted to come and ride too and made us seem more like the other rather than ‘just like you’.

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  • Patrick February 15, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I attended crit mass in NYC the month after the big fiasco. August?

    Anyway, I was surprised how little turn out there was, I’m guessing Crit Mass may be dying on the vine?

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  • jami February 15, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Since I moved here ten years ago, Portland has largely known that bikes exist and are a legitimate part of traffic. I’ve felt that riding in a Critical Mass ride in Portland would “demonstrate” that bikers are scofflaws who like to block traffic, which is actually mostly untrue.

    That said, I rode Critical Mass in L.A. a few years back. L.A. seriously still needs education on the simple existence and legitimacy of bicycles on roads. Critical Mass is still important, but in Portland, what we need is less blunt than a right to be on the road at all. In Portland, we need things like Idaho stops, bike boulevards, and better enforcement against bad drivers who hurt and kill people.

    What we need in Portland now is more subtle, and hard to express in a simple weekly bike ride. But Portlanders do express what Portland needs now, with things like super-legal rides to show how ridiculous it is for bikes to come to a complete stop at all times, fun rides to show how great it is to ride in Portland, memorial rides when a driver has killed someone, and political activism to improve our laws. Our need for Critical Mass has advanced, and while that’s complicated, it’s also great.

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  • Paul Tay February 16, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Why bother with Critical Mass when you have Bike Kiss-in?

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  • Darkness February 17, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Critical mass is like a keg party for cyclists. When people young and inexperienced with alcohol, they often drink too much. With age an experience, the thrill of getting wasted (usually) wears down a little bit. People realize that just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. Hopefully the fact that critical mass has died of is a sign that Portland is gaining some bike maturity.

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  • Dabby McCrashalot February 17, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Ok, I am going to come right out and say it.

    Critical mass is stupid, devolutionary, and rude.

    I could not be happier that it died here.

    The lack of Critical Ass will however have a profound and negative effect on the amount of press time that Rev. Phil gets.

    I hope he deals with it well.

    Maybe he will find another outlet?

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  • justa February 18, 2009 at 11:10 am

    it was overpoliced and therefore sterile and boring almost every time i attended. it really just felt like a standing date with the PPB every month. good thing this city is chockablock with other fun/bike events.

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  • Kt February 19, 2009 at 10:47 am

    +1, Jami @ comment #40!!! πŸ™‚

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